Art and Politics: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, Theater

Walter A. Davis

Art and Politics: Psychoanalysis, Ideology, Theater (London: Pluto Press, 2007).

This book is the culmination of a trilogy that includes Deracination (reviewed in S&D #37, 2005) and Death’s Dream Kingdom (reviewed in S&D #41, 2006). Where the early volumes addressed history and the writing of history, the third volume focuses on drama and the political vocation of the theater. As the subtitle suggests, it presents a psychoanalytic critique of liberal ideology in the contemporary theater, while ultimately formulating and promoting an existential sense of the tragic as the only basis for a truly radical theater and for any stance of political engagement worthy of the name.

To this end, it starts with the controversy surrounding the New York Theater Workshop’s cancellation of an opening (of My Name Is Rachel Corrie) because its subject-matter (vaguely critical of Israel) risked offending wealthy and powerful supporters of the NYTW and/or members of the theater-going public. From his analysis of this controversy, Davis draws three important conclusions. First, and least surprising, he shows that even supposedly radical theater in contemporary North America is held hostage to concentrated wealth: artists only appear to be free when they remain within limits set and enforced by the rich and powerful. Perhaps more surprising (given the controversy surrounding it), Davis argues that the Rachel Corrie play wasn’t really radical to begin with, and that its eventual production in New York and elsewhere around the country would trumpet as truly radical theater what is in fact a fainthearted instance of liberal humanism. Finally, Davis concludes that the worst case of ideology is self-censorship, evident here in both the political-practical and the ethical-aesthetic sense: the NYTW bows to pressure in canceling the opening of the play; the play itself refuses to confront the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head-on, retreating into reassuring platitudes instead. “Public space in late capitalism,” Davis insists in a trenchant formulation, “is the arena in which we are put collectively to sleep. Authentic theater is the exception” (35).

In the course of the book, Davis extends this analysis of the obstacles to authentic theater from the entertainment industry to religion and liberal humanism: these three institutions are the main sources of the ideological guarantees protecting or preventing us from perceiving essential truths about the human condition, as it is beset by trauma, conflict, and contingency. The Corrie affair was, of course, not just about wealth and power; it was also about one of the sacred cows of religion (anti-Zionism equated with anti-Semitism). And as Davis reminds us (quoting Marx), “Criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism” (65). But his most extensive critique of ideological guarantees (comprising the whole of Chapter 5) targets the secular humanism of Wayne Booth, whom Davis engages in an extended debate about the social and ethical function of literature and literary studies. For Booth, literature helps us establish a unified self that through the exercise of reason and an understanding of rhetoric is able to harmonize itself and the multiple roles it is called upon to play in society; its basic function or use is adaptive. For Davis, by contrast, the function of literature is to rip through the spurious guarantees offered by reason and social mores, and to force us to confront the traumas and conflicts that lie hidden at the heart of our being.

Obviously, psychoanalysis is for Davis a touchstone; only a psychoanalytically-informed understanding of the tragedy of the human condition can enable us to break free of ideological conditioning and reach the more profound truths such conditioning serves to cover over and avoid. In this regard, the contrast between the theater of Arthur Miller and that of Eugene O’Neill is emblematic: although Miller does broach tragic subject-matter, he always veers away from it to conclude with comforting platitudes about the ultimate goodness of human nature; O’Neill, by contrast, forces us to confront tragic conflict in depth, and refuses to offer easy solutions. “Rather than resolving a trauma (which is the office of bad writers and pre-existent artistic forms) the artist’s task is to constitute a trauma so that we will know it whole and from the inside” (82), Davis insists. In this light, theater appears therapeutic in effect (if not in intent): its function is to break down ego-defenses (the guarantees) and thereby achieve better understanding of the core conflicts that comprise the psyche.

But this therapeutic effect of radical theater is not to be mistaken for individual therapy: drama is a preeminently public medium (even more so than film, Davis argues [36]), and its audience and effects are and always have been collective. Hence his concern, given the persistent recourse to depth-psychological terminology and modes of analysis, to avert “the collapse of political thought in[to] bourgeois psychologism” (135). What is required instead is “the mediation of the depth-psychological and the sociopolitical that we must recover if we are to understand contemporary history” (135; see also 71-76). Important as is his redefinition of ideology, Davis does not offer a clear way of mediating the depth-psychological and the sociopolitical, even as he recognizes the importance of so doing.

Here, as in the earlier volumes, ideology is defined not primarily in terms of material interests, but in terms of emotion: “The real forces that determine what individuals and groups believe,” Davis insists, “are not ideas but the psychological and emotional needs that underlie them” (59). In this respect, he might have followed Althusser’s lead, inasmuch as the latter sought to merge a Marxian concern with social relations and a Lacanian concern with psychodynamics. But Davis’s definition of ideology is strikingly pre-Althusserian. Ideology is for him purely negative (it is false consciousness), and authentic, tragic consciousness is what gets us outside it: “ideologies … make it impossible for us to confront the truth of our historical situation” (119); tragic drama forces us “to make the transition from those emotions we feel we must have to those we realize we must choose [and] that process is the one that frees us from ideology” (79).

Even if we grant (pace Althusser) that ideology plays a largely negative role, the emphasis on family relations in Davis’s account of ideology may be overly reductive or even misguided: does the family in fact provide an adequate mediation or emblem of socio-political conflict in contemporary society? It is probably inevitable (given his debts to psychoanalysis) that tragic psychic conflict for Davis ends up pitting beleaguered desire against a vindictive super-ego. But what if (as Marcuse has famously argued under the rubric of “repressive desublimation”) the more important obstacle to progressive political change is the ways capitalism has weakened the super-ego practically beyond recognition and continually inflames exorbitant consumerist desires in its absence? More generally, we could ask whether psychic conflict really provides an adequate key to social conflict: if “the true coefficient of adversity [is] the barriers one discovers in oneself when ones tries to turn one’s fantasies and projects into deeds” (131), what weight and what place are given to the barriers existing outside the self, in the socio-political arena?

Then there is the question concerning the source of the anxiety that the ego-defensive guarantees comprising ideology are designed to assuage and conceal. Here, as in the earlier volumes, Davis’s account identifies a number of quite different sources, without examining the relations (of priority or causality or parity) among them: simple contingency; cruelty at the heart of the nuclear family; socio-historical trauma (such as 9/11 or Pearl Harbor). But here in the last volume, a disturbing tendency appears (or perhaps at last becomes visible): following Heidegger, Davis insists that the psyche itself is founded on an originary anxiety (109, 168n.4). Art and Politics takes this position a surprising step further, for a work that is vigorously critical of all religion: originary anxiety comes to resemble original sin! “Evil is the primary fact,” Davis proclaims (79), and the function of tragic drama is hence to “replace belief in the fundamental goodness of human nature… with the recognition of a fundamental evil that we must acknowledge not as an accident but as a primary condition that is rooted in the very being of the psyche” (77). The promised land of eventual social transformation is possible only if we first allow tragic drama to “maximize a suffering that must be sustained because it is the force and flame of radical change” (135).

What guarantee is there that existential dread is conducive to revolutionary engagement? What if suffering and anxiety shut down any inclination to initiate change, instead? In any case, what is most problematic about this move, as Deleuze & Guattari have argued (particularly in Anti-Oedipus), is that once anxiety is considered intrinsic to the psyche, it becomes difficult if not impossible to mobilize any psychology for social change: for if anxiety is intrinsic, society cannot he held responsible for it, and it therefore provides no motive force for political engagement. For all that Davis has given us, both in timely concrete analyses and novel theoretical formulations, this remains one of the most deeply problematic aspects of his perspective.

Reviewed by Eugene W. Holland
Ohio State University

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